This week’s House of Assembly sitting proved that when it comes down to ‘matters of state’ involving the disbursement of the country’s resources, it is a no-nonsense business that has to be efficiently regulated.
The heat was turned up when legislators debated over the cause for an amendment to the St Lucia National Economic Fund (NEF) Amendment Bill.
While there was heated counter arguments from opposing sides, the underlying premise was directed to solidify and safeguard an essential component of the bill.
Prime Minister Philip J Pierre tabled the bill noting that the Act was created to provide uses of the fund and the financial requirements for that purpose. He explained about the provisions of the fund as applicable in Section IV of the Act.
“Currently…one of the functions of the fund is to provide monies for the purpose approved by cabinet that is not considered recurrent in nature,” said Pierre.
He added that while this section has created some level of ambiguity in its presentation, “section IV of the Act is being amended to remove the words that are not considered recurrent in nature, to make it clear that cabinet will approve of the purpose of the monies to be provided by the fund.”
Pierre assured that when it comes down to expending of state’s funds, the monies will be well spent as the bill provides cabinet with the authority “to deal with the Consolidated Fund, which possesses all the money in the country.”
The Prime Minister beckoned legislators “to look at the value of the amendment …as we do not present no ill-conceived ideas on this amendment.”
There was strong support for the amendment from parliamentarians on the government side with Castries Central MP Richard Fredrick and Castries South East MP Dr. Ernest Hilaire, especially being very vocal about the motion. With the first appearance of Opposition Leader Allen Chastanet in the House for its fourth sitting, since the July polls, it triggered a ‘steamy episode’ that had to be regularly kept in check by House Speaker Claudius Francis.
Chastanet argued that with provisions in the clause being redirected to legislate that the funds cannot be used for “recurrent expenditure” that has “caused the government to put together solid cases …such as the hurricanes, the CDC buildings (renovation), and situation with the farmers, because ideally the way that the fund was designed is for it to be a Sovereign Fund.”
He said the funds could be accessible to buy bonds and to finance “government approved projects.”
Chastanet opined that the amendment to the clause, should be better directed at establishing a new Economic Fund to remove such hurdles in the disbursement of funds for national projects.
Frederick took umbrage to a prior missive issued by the United Workers Party (UWP), in which opposition leader Chastanet insinuates that “we cannot allow the CIP to be turned into a ‘Slush Fund’ at the whims and fancies of cabinet,” and that “It has to be managed properly with all accountability.”
He stated that there is evidence to prove that “this former Minister for Finance (Chastanet) proceeded to use our entire Consolidated Fund as his ‘slush fund’ and more so, for the benefit of his ‘friends, family and foreigners’.”
Fredrick referred to the Micoud South MP’s concern that the amendment removes oversight of the funds from the CIP and “gives direct access to the Cabinet of Ministers.”
The Castries Central MP countered that this assumption is not right. The attorney-at-law delved into the requirements of the NEF Act stating that all prior provisions of the Act remain in place and that the board has “the ultimate authority to approve (projects).”
Frederick explained that the only amendment was to remove “the word that is not considered recurrent in nature.” He said all the amendment seeks to do is to make the law more precise, and “to make the amendment open to only one interpretation and that is the intention of the amendment.”
He explained that the amendment “does not take away authority from the board the authority to approve or disapprove an application …all it does, (is) it seeks to regularize the uncertainty of what interpretation recurrent or non-recurrent expenditure is.”
Dr. Hilaire intoned that this amendment was a matter of necessity and duly requires that “we have to make a change.” He added that what precipitated this action, hinged on a simple fact “that (this) Minister for Finance would write to the National Economic Fund and ask for a grant to do a national clean-up, because of the state of the country left behind by the Micoud South MP.”
Dr. Hilaire, the minister whose portfolio oversees the CIP funds, explained that, the procedure that included going to parliament was dispensed with by the former administration and the National Economic Fund was passed. He noted that the requirements was repelled for the use of monies by parliament and instead there was no parliamentary oversight, “But monies went to the Consolidated Fund.”
Dr. Hilaire provided statistics on the monies spent from the Consolidated Fund. He listed that $128 million from the NEF was deposited into the Fund; CIP bonds and direct transfers to the Fund – $47 million; excess cash at CIP deposited in the CF – $23 million.
However, Chastanet countered that there is no legal way that monies deposited into the Consolidated Fund can be controlled by an individual and that, “in order for it to be taken from the Consolidated Fund it has to go through the (budget) estimates.”
Hilaire argued that there were monies for projects that had to be gazetted “but they were never gazetted.” He queried: “How could the monies have been approved when they were never gazetted?”
Citing a point of ‘illegality’, Hilaire further noted that, “The committee was approving monies for capital projects that were never gazetted, as such …and this member for Micoud South wants to stand in this house and accuse us, talking about transparency and accountability.”
He said that the former finance minister received monies “for projects that were never declared as government projects.”